From supercyclone, Orissa has seven tips for Black Sunday relief

Indian Express, 7 January 2005

Unaffected dists should not sit idle, use them in relief; nothing like back-up communication: Ersama planners

Like a war veteran who has been there, done that, suffered and survived, Orissa is watching the massive relief operations in Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands with the eye of a professional.

The tsunami may have spared Orissa but there is no state in India that has more experience in dealing with the aftermath of a calamity. And no other state that knows more about how relief operations can get botched up despite good intentions and an excess of resources.

‘‘Often the the constraint is not material resources but coordination,” Special Relief Commissioner of Orissa R. Balakrishnan told The Indian Express.

Not only does the state experience floods, starvation and cyclones almost every year, but it has even had to live through the supercyclone of 1999 that killed at least 10,000 people and left 15 lakh homeless. So Balakrishnan knows what he is talking about.

The media, NGOs and volunteers should act as watchdogs and whistleblowers, says Balakrishnan. And the state would do well to listen. When a flood hit Orissa in 2003, the relief commissioner’s office would hold a press conference every day, not just to give out information but also to get feedback from the media on which areas were being neglected and where improvements could be made.

Damodar Raut, Minister for Panchayati Raj and six-time MLA from Ersama block in Jagatsingpur, which was the worst hit by the supercyclone, agrees that a breakdown of communications delayed relief reaching some of the worst-hit areas. And Balakrishnan added that while 250 kitchens were set up during the last flood, it would have been very useful if there was someone at each one of them to make sure that everyone was being fed.

Orissa has learnt that it pays to set up an inventory of resources — both material and human — that can be called upon when disaster actually strikes. It has, for example, a database of boats that can be hired. It has a list of people who have experience in making packages and handling relief materials.

Orissa has identified “gateways” — districts that share borders with Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal — which can mobilise resources from these states. Even mills that can supply large quantities of “chura-gur” to feed the victims have been earmarked.

Two other practical lessons may come in handy. One is that airdropping is very expensive and relief does not reach the vulnerable — the old, the women and the children — as it is often grabbed by the strong. The other is that communication systems using very high frequency have to be put in place. These have been made available to block offices. They do not need electricity. Also, underground optical fibre cables are being put in place as overhead phone wires fail during such emergencies.

Today it is Tamil Nadu and the Andamans. Tomorrow the need could arise anywhere. Orissa’s lessons apply to all of India.

Ila Patnaik

Ila Patnaik